Counterbalance No. 110: Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Illinois’

Sufjan Stevens
Asthmatic Kitty

Klinger: As you know, Mendelsohn, when it comes to choosing albums for Counterbalance, we take our marching orders from a website called Acclaimed Music, which is run by a Swedish mathematician who has compiled as many lists as he can get his hands on, feeds them into a machine, and posts the top 3000 on his website. We bow before our mathematical overlord Henrik Franzon, for he is truly the Nate Silver of rock. Still, all this precision does take us into some odd places. These past couple weeks are a good example—I’m pretty sure Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 magnum opus Illinois is the polar opposite of last week’s selection, Straight Outta Compton. My ears are about ready to drop their transmission from shifting gears so fast.

Stevens had already written an album of songs for his home state of Michigan, and he took some ribbing for his clearly unfeasible plan to write similar LPs for the remaining 48 states. (It didn’t help that he was also slaving away at five-disc Christmas sets, a bonus disc of Illinois outtakes, increasingly elaborate stage shows, and possibly a ladder to the moon.) Illinois, though, appears to be his defining moment, a point where his aesthetic sensibilities meshed perfectly with the times, delighting critics and select audiences alike. Even I, who was not especially ensconced in “indie” culture (whatever that means) around that time, found myself caught up in its delicate charms and charming delicacy. How’s about you, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: I don’t like rock that is delicate or charming. Delicate and charming are for little girls and long-winded monologues about Faberge eggs—neither of which has any business in the realm of rock music—even if it is the softer, pastier, twee sub-genre of rock ‘n’ roll that rears its precious little head from time to time out of the scarf-wearing corner of the indie culture. But, as we must every week, I will bend a knee to the whims of the list, I will set aside N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and try to transport myself to the magical fairy land of Illinois. I will swap the songs built around the Amen Break and gunshot samples for twinkly, lush arrangements. I will shift my focus from songs about that revolve around the bleak humor of gang life to songs about the bleak humor of . . . bone cancer?

So we’ll do what the list says. But first a story. In 2005 I was young and ambitious and newly on the Internet with my very own “blog”. Much like today, I wrote about music. At the end of the year I made a couple of Top Ten lists, like any good music blogger worth his salt and full of opinions. The last list I made was titled “Albums I Should Have Listened to in 2005 But Didn’t”.

Guess what album was number one on that list, Klinger? Go ahead. Guess.

Klinger: Don’t Believe the Truth by Oasis?

Mendelsohn: The list was called “Albums I Should Have Listened eo in 2005 But Didn’t”, not “Albums You Couldn’t Pay Me to Listen to in 2005.” It was Illinois, Klinger. I didn’t listen to it. Mostly because everyone around me was telling me it was awesome and I can be willfully stubborn sometimes. Years later when I finally got around to listening to it, it must have been so underwhelming that I can’t recall it ever happening. It’s not that I dislike Illinois. I don’t. There’s just something lacking from Stevens’ music. If you could combine Stevens’ preternatural songwriting ability with Oasis’ vapid cock-sure, rock-sure swagger, we might have a winning formula. As it is, I just have a hard time getting enthused about this record. Maybe I’m still a little hung over from the week we spent with N.W.A. Now that record had some raw energy. Illinois has lots of bells. It doesn’t quite elicit the same effect.

Klinger: I agree that Illinois is chock full of bells—and banjos and flutes and accordions and a lot of other instruments I suspect you are opposed to on the grounds that they don’t rock. But I’m drawn to the lushness of this album for the same reasons I keep coming back to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. (The most acclaimed album of all-time and the subject our first Counterbalance. How time flies.) And much like Brian Wilson, Sufjan Stevens isn’t afraid to let his Sad Flag fly. The song you referenced earlier, “Casimir Pulaski Day”, is shot through with a melancholy that never flinches and at the same time never descends into mawkishness. It’s also one of the few songs I’ve heard that’s written from a teenage perspective and fully captures that sense of feeling something so deeply for the first time. (Big Star’s “Thirteen”? Someone help me out here.)

The fact that he’s writing so clearly from a Christian perspective also can’t be ignored, although I’m reluctant to pigeonhole Stevens as a Christian artist because that conjures up images of Contemporary Christian Music and its facile self-help view of Jesus as a magic potion that makes your life perfect forever. Throughout Illinois, there are earnest struggles with doubt and a realization that forgiveness and grace don’t necessarily come easy. That’s the kind of thing that makes Illinois so compelling for me, even as I make my way through what some folks could conceivably call filler.

Mendelsohn: I’m of the opinion that either there is no filler or the entire album is filler. The album is built in such a way to maximize the ebb and flow of Stevens’ music, which works incredibly well with the lush and intricate arrangements. But if you wanted to start seeing filler, it’s almost everywhere, even in the middle of songs. I catch myself asking, “Do you really need that horn break?” as that horn break slowly burrows into my soft grey matter and lodges itself there for the next week. That’s the one thing that I fully admire about the album—the supremely catchy snippets that Stevens’ has composed and seems to so effortlessly stitch together.

The last thing I ever do with a record, and it usually takes me a month or so, is start to analyze the lyrical content. I just haven’t gotten there yet, so I will rely on you for this next question. Do we have to tag this record or Stevens as Christian? I know what his faith is, but is there an overtly religious bent to this album that I’m not hearing? Or is Stevens’ merely reflecting upon the human condition, the experiences of doubt and grace that we all share regardless of creed much the same way the Brian Wilson did with loneliness and isolation?

Klinger: Yeah, that’s something that’s vexed a lot of people, especially your more “relevant” Christian types as they try to claim Stevens as one of their own. Very seldom does he explicitly reference Biblical touch points here—”It’s the great I Am” is sung throughout “Decatur”, but exactly what the singers are referring to is less clear. (I’ve never been to Decatur; maybe it is indeed the manifestation of God on Earth. If so they should really use that in their promotional materials.)

I think that given Sufjan Stevens’ public declarations of his faith, it’s impossible to separate his beliefs from the message in a song like “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”, which despite outward appearances is, to my way of thinking, the most overtly Christian statement on the album. In presenting one of the most notorious serial killers of all time in essentially humanizing terms is one thing. To state, “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him” is such a bold commentary on his own (and by extension, all of our) brokenness that it’s hard to take it out of the context of faith. It points out how much following Christ really requires, and just how impossible that can seem . . . But hey, that “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” is a catchy number—and in 5/4 time, no less!

Mendelsohn: Well, now that we are down this rabbit hole, I’m starting to feel a little claustrophobic. But before I bolt for the exit, I will say this: I don’t subscribe to the whole idea of Christian brokenness. I’m perfect just the way I am, Klinger. And I suppose, if I’m perfect just the way I am, then Illinois is perfect just the way it is as well—no matter how we choose to view it. Stevens succeeded in creating an eminently likable, well-rounded, and diligently crafted listening experience that at times seems otherworldly without ever losing sight of its humanity. I may not be returning to this album in any meaningful way in the near future, but it’s not hard to see why it has landed on the list just outside of the Top 100. Given the ever-expanding state of indie rock, Illinois stands head and shoulders above much of the rest of the field. Ain’t nothing broken about what Sufjan was doing at the time.

Klinger: Fair enough. I’ll just leave some of these tracts here.